The Strad – ‘Paganini: a whole range of advanced techniques’

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“Imagine someone singing it with one eye crying” – Mathilde Milwidsky

I had known for a long time that I wanted to perform much of Huw Watkins’ violin output in concert. When Robert Taub (director of the Institute of the Arts at Plymouth University) gave me the freedom to schedule a recital for the inaugural season of the newly refurbished Levinsky Hall, I knew it would be time. Robert’s only wish was that I could include Paganini’s Caprice #24, and the lineup from that starting point was definitely a first for me, having only played Paganini in the early rounds of contests and at the ‘ Klassenvorspiel’ during my studies in Munich.

Huw’s Partita for Solo Violin immediately came to mind. It was written in 2006 as a commission for the BBC New Generation Artists Scheme and the amazing Alina Ibragimova. Huw’s melodic writing is marvelous – strikingly beautiful phrases that work with the resonance of the instrument to fully allow the violin to ‘sing’. His writing is so “hands-on” that it’s a bit surprising that Huw doesn’t play a string instrument himself. The piece, in four movements, oscillates between the finest filigree writing, full of exquisite shades of rhythmic variation and shading, to a stunning, rumbling final movement that somehow transforms the instrument into another entity, something indomitable and irrepressible. The virtuosity of this final movement, and even the extended techniques in some of the other movements, are never the focal point but always in the service of the music.

In contrast, Paganini’s 24th Caprice takes the violinist through a range of advanced techniques – left-hand pizzicato, sequences of thirds, tenths and arpeggios – with each variation highlighting a specific technique. A slightly histrionic variation is entirely in octaves – my teacher recently joked that you could imagine someone singing it with one eye crying. I think, and hope, that it will be fascinating to hear these two remarkable works side by side, which probe the depths and heights of the solo violin.

As Huw will be joining me for this concert, I wanted to include two of his pieces for violin and piano, one of which, ‘Arietta’, was composed during the 2020 lockdown. Playing Huw’s own works with him is incredibly special – the notes are totally part of him, which opens up dimensions of performance that we dream of.

Elgar’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in E minor, written at the end of the First World War, is a piece close to my heart. Elgar himself wrote in a letter to his dedicatee, Marie Joshua, that he is “full of golden sound”. The second movement contains a special and elusive writing, almost a stream of consciousness. Elgar’s wife suggested it seemed to evoke the magical nature of the Sussex woodlands surrounding their country home – ‘Brinkwells’. I experienced a bit of that magic, I think, having spent a lot of time growing up with my family in the Sussex countryside.

As a foil for the Watkins and Paganini, I decided to close the program with Romanian Folk Dances by Bartòk, arranged for violin and piano by his friend and compatriot Zoltán Székely, and Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane, dedicated to the great Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi.

These works seem down to earth in the best sense – rooted in folk tradition, vocal inflections and Central European rhythms – and they offer a little virtuoso continuity to Paganini’s 24th Caprice.

“Paganini Caprice n°24 exerted an influence beyond its own immediate sphere” – Robert Taub

It was rumored that it was the devil himself who gave a violin concert in Vienna on March 29, 1828, such was the effect of the hitherto unimaginable playing of the violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini. In addition to fascination with the diabolical as part of the burgeoning romantic ethos, Paganini influenced the more serious composers of the time. His dazzling virtuoso innovations stimulated Chopin to seek an expansion of expressive coloring on the piano. He exercised not only a general compositional influence on the young Schumann; indeed, the intensely spiritual effect of his playing gave Schumann the strength to permanently abandon his mother’s desired career as a lawyer in favor of a career as a musician.

Although by the time Liszt heard Paganini in Paris in 1831 he had distinguished himself as an extraordinary pianist, the ever-competitive Liszt had set himself the goal of setting new standards of piano virtuosity. In addition to his Transcendental StudiesLiszt has completed his Six Great Studies of Paganini which include virtuoso piano arrangements by Campanelle (from the last movement of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2) and 5 Caprices by Paganini. The Paganini Caprice n°24 exerted an influence beyond its immediate sphere; not only does it serve as the model for the sixth of Liszt’s Paganini Etudes, but it also serves as the theme for Brahms’ Variations on a Paganini Theme and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Paganini Theme.

Mathilde Milwidsky and Huw Watkins will perform this program at Levinsky Hall at 7:00 p.m. on November 12, 2022. More information can be found here:

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